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Off the Page: Joan Silber and Houck Smith

Joan Silber and Carol Houck Smith
Writer and Editor
Thursday, November 11, 2004; 1:00 PM

Joan Silber had published four books and won several important grants before Carol Houck Smith, the prestigious editor from W.W. Norton, took her on.

A month ago, her first book with Smith, Ideas of Heaven: A Ring of Stories, became a finalist for this year's National Book Award. It is her first book in 20 years to be up for a national award.

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Both Silber and Smith joined us Thursday, Nov. 11 at 1 p.m. ET to discuss the relationship between writer and editor. They will also answer questions about Silber's new book, this year's controversial National Book Award nominations (criticized by some for the writers missing from the list, such as Philip Roth) and other aspects of writing and publishing.

Silber's previous books have included Household Words, which was awarded the PEN/Hemingway Award. She has won grants from the National Endowment of the Arts and the Guggenheim.

Smith has worked with two former U.S. poet laureates, Stanley Kunitz and Rita Dove, and fiction writers including Andrea Barrett and Pam Houston.

A transcript follows.

Host Carole Burns is a fiction writer with short stories published or upcoming in Washingtonian Magazine and several literary journals. Twice a fellow at The MacDowell Colony, she's at work on a novel.

Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.


Carole Burns: Hello, and welcome to Off the Page! We are honored today to have two guests online--Joan Silber, one of five writers up for this year's National Book Award in fiction, and her editor, Carol Houck Smith. Welcome, readers and guests! And, to the first question.


Carole Burns: Joan, I was struck in Ideas of Heaven by how different your short stories are to others being published now--they take a very broad sweep of a life, instead of one moment or incident, one small part.

Can you talk about that? Joan Silber: Actually, I started as a novelist, I did things sort of backwards. And one thing I didn't like about short stories is that they focused on one scene. So I wanted to do things that focused on a longer timespan. And it was really Alice Munro who showed me the way. Her stories make those great leaps through time. I had to learn how to do it, I had to teach myself how to do it. But I'm not sure I found it harder than doing anything else.

Carol Houck Smith: I was just going to add to what Joan said. From the beginning I thought of these stories as small novels, rather than short stories. In the present controversy over the fiction finalists for the National Book Award, there has been some to say that these don't have plot, but I think they do have plot, if plot is the motivation of characters and what leads them to some sort of conclusion. These stories have a conclusion. I'm not much in favor of the word plot, because it always seems as if it arises from the author instead of from the characters, and what the characters want to do.


Rockville,MD: Speaking of Philip Roth, why do you think the Plot Against America wasn't nominated for a National Book Award? The basic proposition is very plausible and compelling. The characters are well developed. I'm only half way through it, but am enjoying it immensely. If it continues at this level, and having read several reviews, including Jonathan Yardley's in the Post, I expect it will, then I don't understand why it wasn't nominated. I haven't read any of the nominated books, but is it possible that the committee believed that Roth has already received his share of recognition and prefers to discover more obscure authors?

Carol Houck Smith: We can't speak for the judges. We really don't know, and we shouldn't know, what is behind their thinking. We do know they are all very regarded people, all of different temperaments and they're all serious people. I myself am reading the Philip Roth book right now, and I'm finding it very interested, and I'm eager to finish it. But I think it's very nice and it's envigorating that authors that are literary and less well-known to the general public, whatever that is, I think it's very nice that they have a chance to get acquainted with writers not as visible as Philip Roth.

Joan Silber: I feel that I'm not the person to ask. But I feel they chose five strong books.


Washington, D.C.: Joan, I really loved your story, "The High Road," which I read in the O'Henry collection. How did it come about?

Joan Silber: That came about... the first story in the collection is narrated by a woman who is tormented by her dance coach, and I wanted to tell his side of the story, and he became the narrator of "The High Road." He's a real evil character in the first story, and the net of this story is the changing perspective, and what is bad in one story is good in another, and I was very eager to get that perspective.

Carol Houck Smith: And you know, the reader changes his mind. He seems so unlovable and sadistic in the first story, and then it's his story, and his unrequited love, and he's still unlikeable, but he's human, and you feel empathy for him, and I think that's why these stories work so well together.


Monterey, CA: I am a very good short non fiction essay/column writer with a lot of great ideas -- and not very good self esteem.

I think I need an editor -- or someone -- who can genuinely appreciate the value of what I have to say and both encourage me and help me market my work to build up some successes.

Is this a realistic expectation?

If not, what would you recommend?

Joan Silber: I'd say the person most writers use first is a trusted friend, so I would make sure someone was reading the stuff who could give a candid opinion.

Carol Houck Smith: I'm not sure whether you're a published column person. Certainly, whatever you write, you want some visibility--whatever your self-esteem is, you shouldn't be putting it under the bed. You should be submitting it, whether to local newspapers, to contests in Poets and Writers. You seem to be in need of someone who can bolster your self-esteem, so Joan's suggestion--possibly not a spouse, a spouse is there simply to say, you're good! So you really need someone who can be tough but kind. Local writing groups are good. I go against the feeling that writers conferences are a waste of time. I think that's a good place to meet people who are at your level, and have contact with people who are writers and teachers. I think people come back with a certain kind of stimulation and improved self-esteem.


Carole Burns: I was hoping you could both talk about the the role of editor these days. Carol, how do you think it's changed since you started in the business? Joan, how has the editing process helped you, and has it ever hindered you? Carol Houck Smith: It's changed in that I think there is so much pressure to acquire books that there is possibly less editiing, and if you're a voracious reader you'll find that there are a lot of books in great need of editing. I think the job of editor is to be a facilitator, and to discover what the intention of the writer is, and then to try and stand in for the general reader and assess whether the writer has fulfilled that intention. I think it's a chemical relationship between author and editor, in the same way that you're attracted to friends when you meet them, and so the editor has really joined the book. I maintain that writers and editors, journalists, are all voyeurs, we try to enter other people's lives and be acute observers. The aforementioned Philip Roth is one of those people.

I work very closely with all my authors according to how much closeness they need, or want.

Joan Silber: I just want to say that my experience with Carol has been particularly wonderful. She had a light hand, but she would edit at the level of the word, and we would have long discussions about certain words, which was quite fun. But one of the crucial changes she asked me to make was in the beginning of the book, the first paragraph of the first story. She felt that it began in the wrong place. The story is called, "My Shape," and it's narrated by a character who is talking about having a large bosom. Carol thought that if the book began like that, although it's a funny paragraph, it would misrepresent what the book was about. So we moved that paragraph and I wrote what I thought was a more suitable paragraph about longing, a longing for glamour and a longing for a more expansive.

Carol: The first paragraph as she had it made it sound like a more facetious book than it is. But the bosom is still there, probably on about page 2 now.

Joan: I've worked with other editors who are more difficult than Carol. But usually an editor doesn't make you do what you don't want to do.

The other thing that I owe to Carol is the subtitle: A Ring of Stories. I had described it as a ring of stories when I talked about the book. And Norton decided it would make a good subtitle. And we had a long debate about what art to use for the cover. It ended up being a postcard that I had at my desk, while I was writing. It's a painting that is owned by a museum in Venice.

Carol: The first story is about Alice, and in the very last story, the man toward the end of his life meets a woman who h appens to be Alice. When I was reading this in manuscript, I let out a little gasp of satisfaction that things had worked out well for Alice. It was a very satisfying but never sentimental way to form the ring.


West Coast : Do you think the present political
climate in America changes literature at all? I've noticed that George Orwell has been moved to non-fiction, for instance.
Does the new look at reality mean that the
wall between fiction and non-fiction is no
longer there? An example is Cheney declaring
Iraq a wonderful success story. How would you file that under the dewey decimal system?

Carol Houck Smith: I certainly thing the present political climate has changed. People are so busy reading political books that fiction in general has suffered. And I do think a line between fact and fiction is becoming invisible. Whether that's good or bad, I don't know. And I think that many things that are non-fiction are portrayed as fiction, and many things that are fiction are portrayed as non-fiction, if you want to look at ads during the election from either side.

Iraq as a success story: They say that every day. We were talking about perspective before.

Joan Silber: I think there's a little bit of confusion in the question. Cheney has lied to us: I don't think I'm saying anything controversial in that. But a lie is not the same as fiction. I think it's an insult to fiction to call what he says fiction.

I noticed in the novel that I'm working on now, political events are entering--there's a plot detail that has to do with the Patriot Act. And that has not happened before, and that's because of the times we live in.

Carol Houck Smith: I'm doing an anthology of short creative non-ficiton, pieces of no more than 2000 words. I've done several of these before, and this is the first one in which some of them are political, and some of them quite clearly represent 9/11. We did not intend it, because it is not meant to be political. But the ways in which people reacted in creative non-fiction had to be noted.


Carole Burns: Joan, why are you a writer, and not an editor? And Carol, why are you an editor, and not a writer? Joan Silber: I am an editor of friends' work--I do read for friends. But I always wanted to write. I've been writing since I was in second grade. It never occurred to me. I always wanted to be a writer. The decision to be writer was made early on.

Carol Houck Smith: Well, I've come to think that I think like a writer, I think like a storyteller, I'm always thinking of the world in terms of stories, but I don't have that urgency, and I perhaps don't have that capacity for solitude. I think that another writer I publish says the most important thing that a writer has to do, is you have to stay in the room. And I found that my skills are more helping people to approximate what they're trying to do, to bring it to fruition.


Washington, D.C.: Joan, I haven't read your book yet, but from what I've read about it, it seems to deal a lot with faith, and religion. Why do you suppose you write about that. I don't think many writers do (despite our recent election won in part over "moral values.")

Joan Silber: Carol just told me to say I write about sex too.

I was very interested in the ways that spiritual longing and sexual longing kind of fill in for each other, that disappointment in one realm leads to consolation in the other. I write about various religions. In my own life I've been most influenced by Buddhism, but the characters are of different beliefs.

Carole Burns: My favorite story in the book is the title story. It's about missionaries in China, and it was a very sympathetic depiction of them, an unpopular way to depict them, I think.

Joan: It's very easy to mock missionaries, and this group is silly to us--they arrive in China knowing no Chinese, and there's something very touching about that, very innocent.

Carol: That's my favorite story, too. This one strikes me as masterful. This one really takes you to a different world.


Arlington, Va.: Carol, have you ever turned down an author, and regretted it later--either because they've done well, or you didn't take a risk when you should have?

Carol Houck Smith: Yes, but there have been books that I've turned down, that became bestsellers, but I was not passionate about them, so I didn't feel I should really live with it for the time that it takes to publish a book. In the case of these two that I'm thinking of, I don't.


Washington, D.C.: What's the best advice you've ever heard--or given--to a beginning writer?

Carol Houck Smith: To be a reader. To become a voracious reader. And to learn to read with your ears as well as your eyes. To read your own work aloud. And even to type out a passage from a writer you love, to really get the rhythm.

Joan Silber: Sometimes what people are asking is, What do I do in the face of defeat? And I do have two answers to that. One is to cultivate equanimity. And the other is to realize that there is more to life than writing.

Carol Houck Smith: I think the other thing is to realize, because people are so quick to feel rejected, that reading, like everything else, is subjective, so someone might love a story or a novel, and someone else doesn't. The phrase, someone else might feel differently, which we use in rejection letters, is the truth. Someone else might feel differently. It's a very subjective experience. And we read for different reasons. So writers who want to be univerally accepted I think have to realize it is subjective. This year I had a writer who published a first collection of stories, couldn't understand why reviewers singled out, This is the best story, this didn't work, couldn't understand why the criteria was different. It's opinion, but it's based on the reviewer's experience or the reader's experience. There are no absolutes. If you get rejected, just keep sending them out.


Carole Burns: Thanks so much, Joan and Carol, for coming online today. And thanks to readers for your questions. I hope you all join us Dec. 2 when we have Margot Livesey, author of The Missing World, talking about her new book, Banishing Verona. And remember, you can get announcements about upcoming authors on "Off the Page" by signing up for our e-mail list. Email me at offthepage2004@yahoo.com.


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